I have lived in the UK for over a decade, but part of my family lives in New York, and I make an annual pilgrimage to visit them. And every year, as I fly back and watch Heathrow’s lights come into view, I thank the lord I live in the UK.
It begins when I wander around New York in shorts and see men stopping their cars to check me out, or point blank staring, giving me a nice once-over and making comments. Every women experiences stuff like this every now and then, and its happened in the UK too, but never to the point where I actually feel the need to cover up so I can get through a day visually unmolested. The other women I saw on the street, incidentally, all looked like they were heading to garden parties. On one level, I shouldn’t judge anyone on how they dress. On a another, I wonder at women who have to get through every day in high heels and cocktail dresses, and wonder what is pressuring them to do this. I’d like to think they simply like to dress that way, but I’d bet that social pressure has a lot to do with it.
The love of the UK gets compounded as I look at the lives of New Yorkers around me. I went for a run in Central Park at 6.30am. First off, Central Park is not an oasis of fresh air within a smoggy city, like my beloved Regent’s Park or Hampstead Heath. Oh no, in America, parks have roads with cars going through them. And runners are having conference calls on headsets as they jog. And colleagues cycle together and discuss reports as they do. And fathers and daughters have their quality time before breakfast, while working out.
I went out to dinner with my aunt, and the people sitting on the tables on either side of us were having business meetings. I was introduced to some friends of my grandmother’s, who were expecting a baby. She will have 2 months of maternity leave if she’s lucky, and hasn’t told the people she works for she’s 6 months pregnant because she is afraid it will affect the way she is viewed in the office. Her husband used to love what he does, but since he works a 12-hour day, 6 days a week, he has lost touch with many of his friends and barely gets to see his wife.
They tell me that the usual day for children in New York passes like this: they go to school, which is followed by music classes, sports classes (including the gym – there are now gyms that cater for the under-10s!) and play-dates. Children do not get free time. On the one hand, it is wonderful that parents are trying to expose their children to so many possible activities. On the other hand, how can a child develop genuine curiosity and creativity if they never have a minute to spare? Why should a child have as rigorous a schedule as their parents? Why should a child have a schedule at all?
On my last day in New York, I had to get my heavy bag across town. There were no lifts in the subways I used, which were some of the busiest in New York. I managed with my bag, but I wonder if people in wheelchairs could?
When crossing a road, there were no raised dots or beeping to accompany the green man to ensure that blind people are afforded a little bit of independence, as there are in the UK.
And these are observations purely about lifestyle. I haven’t mentioned lobbying, the disgusting amounts spent on political campaigns or the paramount role of money and personality in politics. Of course this is anecdotal, of course this is based on a particular section of society in one city alone within a huge country. But if New York is the pinnacle of the American dream, we should fight tooth and nail to stop the influence of America in the UK. We are blessed, for now, to live in a country where people with disabilities are accommodated, where women can usually get decent maternity leave, and where anyone can get access to the healthcare they need, without question. The UK still has a long way to go, but that is perhaps what I love the most. Compared to the US, we are a socialist utopia, but we are still pushing to get even better.